1 June 2020

Richard Yates: The Easter Parade (1976)

'The whole point of crying was to quit before you cornied it up. The whole point of grief itself was to cut it out while it was still honest, while it still meant something. Because the thing was so easily corrupted: let yourself go and you started embellishing your own sobs'.

This is from Revolution Road (1961), Richard Yates's first novel. Without spending hours trying to work out who was the first person to use the expression 'cornied it up', I'm going for that person as Yates, one of the key literal sleuths of the spectrum of middle America, the honest but cruel (because honest) dissector of the social malaise throughout the modern age, the spokesperson for a particular America, and by extension perhaps America as a whole. Yates is at his best when analysing social problems, often small problems, ones unnoticed by others because too small. The example above is known by us all, male or female, when we want to rub in the drama queen mentality, and it really makes no difference if we're seen or not: we always play to an audience, real or imaginary. What is essential to note here is the basic falseness that can come from crying too much, from overacting, although we're often not too sure when we're behaving that way.

I once had a relative who had a friend who, on learning that my relative has a neighbour who wanted to borrow a book of his, refused to go along with the request because 'she seems like the kind of person who licks her thumb before turning the pages.' Personally, I've always had an aversion to such people, and have every sympathy with this objection.

On page 34 of the Vintage Classics re-publication of Yates's The Easter Parade, the protagonist Emily notes this of her mother Pookie:

'Pookie would slowly, absently wipe her thumb against her moist lower lip and then wipe the thumb against the lower right-hand corner of each page, for easier turning; it left the corners of all the pages wrinkled and faintly smeared with lipstick. And tonight she had eaten fudge, which meant there would be fudge as well as lipstick on the pages.' In horror, Emily has to leave this scene.

Emily has an older sister, Sarah, more conventional and who marries a man, Tony, who physically abuses her for twenty years, although she goes along with it – he's the only man she's physically known (and after marriage too), and their three kids complicate things: so she drowns her sorrows in alcohol and continues married, relatively far from NCY on the northern tip of Long Island. She leads a lower-middle-class existence.

Emily, on the other hand, is the educated liberated sister, casually losing her virginity on a one-night-stand and following up with a string of sexual relationships that mean little to her, even (especially?) the PhD student she very briefly marries and who turns out to be not only almost impotent (despite lessons from the shrink) but howling mad! Emily doesn't know what love is, but she knows when she's happy or otherwise.

Tragically, the alcoholic Sarah dies of cirrhosis of the liver – but also from a fall which her husband may have been responsible for, but how can anyone know?

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